In my view, to say that food labels are of limited utility would be an understatement. These labels are often directly misleading. By distracting you with a bunch of blurbs, numbers, and lists that supposedly say everything we need to know about food, we entirely miss out on a number of more important details regarding the quality of the food.
Organic farm fresh spinach has no food label, yet it is well known as an ideal health food. Some foods I know to be healthy offer food labels that turn off many customers. Coconut is extremely high in saturated fat, which is derided by mainstream medicine. But the saturated fat here happens to consist largely of lauric acid, which is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, pro-immune system, anti-inflammatory, and easily usable by the body. How anyone can attack lauric acid is beyond me.
Without getting into the specifics of slightly to highly regulated terms like “organic” or “natural,” I will deal with three common sources of nutrition information found on food labels: health claims claims, ingredients, and nutrition facts.
Regarding health claims: as Michael Pollan writes, foods that make health claims probably aren’t that healthy, and that’s all that really needs be said. True health foods don’t have to try to convince customers of anything.
I do believe that ingredients lists are, in fact, useful—at least more so than nutrition data. The overlying theme of this entire essay is quality. We want to look for quality in foods, and the ingredients list might give us a lot of hints. Chemicals (including artificial and natural flavors) commonly adulterate foods, offering laboratory-derived flavor, shelf-life, and aroma enhancing properties. Unlike a well thought-out recipe of whole foods, chemical additives are not a hallmark of quality food.
Still, there is more to the story than ingredients. An ingredients list might include “tomatoes.” Were they irradiated? Are they GMO? If they are not organic, how many and what kinds of pesticides were used? Were they freeze dried or frozen? Were they heated at high temperatures during processing? What about the soil quality from which the tomatoes came and the amount of carbon necessary for them to get to the shelf? All of these things cannot be found on food labels, so it is extremely important to know the sources of your food and the companies that provide it.
Many diets focus on nutrition data analysis. But much of this information is to simplistic to be useful. Oranges have sugar in them, and they are a healthy food. Orange juice has sugar in it, but unless fresh squeezed and unpasteurized it is not. Industrial feed lot beef might have saturated fat in it. So will grass fed beef, but the saturated fat won’t be loaded with toxic garbage. In fact, the grass fed beef will have higher levels of particular healthful fatty acids, like CLA, which are not listed.
Diabetics and other people with blood sugar regulation or weight gain issues (especially those of us on insulin) might do well to count the total carbohydrates found in a food (subtracting out the fiber). But in doing so, one might drop the ball by replacing healthfulness with low-carb-ness. Not a great trade-off.
And I haven’t even talked about the straight up lies often found on food labels. For example, if a product says “0 grams trans fat per serving” on the front, you can almost always look on the back and see hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats.
This information does not bode well for the legions among us regularly reading nutrition labels. Still, it is better to read what is available to us than not to. The eye that I use is my most suspicious one.